The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action


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What Happens When Hundreds of Herpetologists Get Together?

This past week, the servers, waiters, bartenders, and other townsfolk of the fair city of Chattanooga, TN were probably all wondering similar things: who are these crazy people blocking the sidewalks, clogging our bars, and loudly discussing reptiles, amphibians, and fish all over town? And why do they have an inordinate fondness for Hawaiian shirts? The answer, of course, was that the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (2014 edition) was in town for their annual conference. The Langkilde Lab sent a sizable delegation to the meeting with 6 attendees: Tracy (the PI), Chris Howey and Travis Robbins (the post-docs), Mark Herr and Mark Goldy-Brown (the undergrads), and me (the lone grad student). Starting on a Wednesday morning, we all piled into a fabulous white whale of a Chrysler minivan and roadtripped our way down to Chattanooga. Our first evening got off to a blazing start when, upon receipt of our pizza and beer at Community Pie, we were forced to tell our lovely waitress that her story of a friend being swarmed and attacked by 15 fascist cottonmouths was, in fact, bogus. We also had a grand time at the informal social sipping a few local brews while wondering at the ludicrousness of Sharknado 2, which was playing throughout the hotel bar.

Chris Howey and I in a deep conversation about what is the best way to hold one's hands while giving a scientific presentation.

Chris Howey and I deep in conversation at the social about the best way to hold one’s hands while giving a scientific presentation. Note the multiple Sharknado screens in the background.

JMIH kicked into full gear on the following day, with a morning of plenary speakers and an afternoon full of student presentations in the various awards competitions. Mark Herr, one of a very few undergraduates presenting at the conference, delivered a cracking talk about the relationship between stress levels and defensive behaviors in Cottonmouths. Placed in the last slot of the day, I spoke about my research from this past summer looking at how the adaptations which we see in fence lizards to fire ants (namely fleeing and twitching) may actually be maladaptive in certain situations. Fence lizards seem to react with increased flight and twitching to native ants, which don’t pose a threat, and this behavior may attract attention from native predators such as hawks and snakes (see this previous post for more info about reactions to hawk predators). I also showed data from the past four years which links higher rates of injuries (such as those I wrote about here) with the presence of fire ants. So perhaps this adaptation, while useful to survive fire ant attacks, has some serious costs as well.

Both Mark’s and my presentations were judged for the Henri Seibert Award in Ecology given by SSAR for the best student presentations at the meeting, and we did the Langkilde Lab proud. Mark won a special Honorable Mention, with the judges noting how impressive his work was for an undergraduate. I received the first place award, which, in addition to having a congratulatory letter, came with a chunk of ca$hmoney and a book of my choice from sponsors CRC Press. On the whole, a successful evening for the lab!

Tracy, Mark, and I with big grins after the awards were announced at the SSAR business meeting.

Tracy, Mark, and I with big grins after the awards were announced at the SSAR business meeting.

Other lab members presented their research as well, with Chris Howey chairing a session and talking about the effects of prescribed fire on thermoregulation of snakes, Travis discussing the long-awaited results of his fence lizard breeding experiment (too complicated for me to write up here!), Tracy discussing bearded ladies, and a guest appearance from lab alum Sean Graham looking into the effects of fire ant invasion on Caribbean anoles. Mark Goldy-Brown presented a poster detailing just one piece of the great work he’s done as an undergraduate looking at the effects of fire ant envenomation on fence lizard physiology.

MGBposter

MGB all spiffed up and ready to discuss the effects of fire ant venom on fence lizards.

By the time Sunday evening rolled around, we were all nearing exhaustion. The meeting had many highlights, including an opening reception at the Tennessee Aquarium; the facility was amazing and strolling through the exhibits with great food and bars spaced throughout (including the chance to pet Lake Sturgeon!) was a great experience. We also sampled lots of the great food and beverages on offer in Chattanooga and enjoyed local attractions like free outdoor concerts, a Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball game (with multiple used car giveaways), and others. But the choicest of attractions was the SSAR/HL auction on the final night of the conference.

Each year the SSAR/HL auction takes donations of a diverse set of herpetologically themed items for a fast-paced auction to raise money for student travel to the next year’s conference. Bidding wars often break out for even banal items, and the drama only increases throughout the evening as BAC rises and bidding inhibitions become lower. This year’s auction was MC’ed in part by Sean Graham, who kept the bidding at a blistering tempo with a speed round, and everyone in the lab came away with at least one prize from the auction. For myself, I sprung for an original 1875 print of “Check list of North American Batrachia and Reptilia, with a systematic list of the higher groups and an essay on geographical distribution” by E. D. Cope, one of the founders of North American herpetology.

auctionbook

The first published Bulletin of the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History)! It is now mine.

Most people purchased books, but Tracy fended off all comers to walk away with one of the hits of the night: a t-shirt emblazoned with a meticulously detailed guide to snake hemipenes (based on the research of a good friend from Down Under, Scott Keogh).

AuctionWinnings

A triumphant end of auction for the Langkilde Lab and associates!

Come Monday morning, it was time to head home to State College, hoping that four consecutive nights of sleep deprivation had resulted in only temporary insanity. Travis opted for his own special recovery breakfast, destroying a gargantuan slice of chocolate cake from the diner attached to our hotel.

traviscake

Travis’ epic morning-after nosh.

Meanwhile, the undergrads, despite their youth, higher metabolisms, and generally whipper-snappery, seemed to feel the effects more than the older, more experienced hands, and required some serious naptime in the backseat of the van on the return leg.

sleepy

The greenhorns seem to be plumb tuckered out in the backseat…awwwwwww.

All in all, the Langkilde Lab rocked JMIH 2014, and we’re looking forward to future editions. With so many folks recently moving on to bigger and better things, future JMIH meeting will be a chance for Langkilde Lab reunions par excellence!


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The Elusive Bushmaster

by Mark Herr

Bushmasters have every characteristic of a mythical creature. When someone describes a bushmaster, they describe a giant, secretive, dangerous snake which lurks the shadows of only the darkest forests. They aren’t mythical beasts, though; they are real – but very rare. This rarity has resulted in the completion of very few studies concerning their natural history, and as such they remain quite a mystery to science. This mystery is all the more dramatic given how impressive and well known they are – bushmasters are the longest vipers in the world and the only vipers in the new world to lay eggs. What’s more, females brood their eggs, guarding them until they hatch – a behavior that’s quite rare among venomous snakes.

What is known about them? We know that they are mammal eaters, with studies suggesting that they specialize on eating spiny rats. We know that there are three species in Central America, with another (possibly two) in South America. We know that bushmaster bites are a particularly severe medical emergency – although I’ve heard independently from a number of herpetologists that they are behaviorally quite docile. What I think is most interesting is that we know they are restricted to virgin rainforest. Virgin forest is forest which has never been cut, or at least hasn’t been cut for so long that it’s reached the final stage of floral succession.

Why are bushmasters confined to virgin forest? There are theories, but the fact is that nobody is sure. The question could have interesting implications to ecology or conservation, especially given that primary rainforest is being cut at an alarming rate globally.

In order to explore this question and simply gain insight into the natural history of bushmasters, The Orianne Society has recently initiated its Bushmaster Conservation Project. The project’s goal is to study bushmasters in their natural habitat and document important aspects of their natural history, with the objective of learning how these rare snakes might be better conserved. So it was with this project and these goals that I went to Panama with Steve Spear of The Orianne Society and 3 other biologists this July.

The project is still in its early stages, and in order to begin studying bushmasters, you need to find them. That was really our goal for the trip, we were to evaluate the study site to determine whether or not enough bushmasters could be found to begin a field study. Our target area was the primary forest in and around General Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park near the town of El Cope, Panama.

Would we find our target? Bushmasters are unbelievably rare – I want to make sure you got that. At the World Congress of Herpetology in 2012 I heard Harry Greene (one of the few to have ever studied bushmasters in the wild) say that for his study, it required approximately 400 jungle hours to catch one snake. We had five biologists, one local guide, and would be in the field for 7 days. If we worked 10 hour field days that would be 420 jungle hours. We could do it.

Or maybe not. We never found a bushmaster. I wish I could give you some explanation, but in the end they are simply that elusive. The trip was a phenomenal experience for me. Not only did gain insight into tropical ecology and the biogeography of Panama (where I had never been before this), I also learned to have some serious respect for the energy that it takes to study rare species in the wild. It’s an unreal task. If anyone is up to that task, though, I’m absolutely confident that it’ll be the folks at Orianne.

I’ll leave you with a set of photos from the trip. We ended up with ten species of snakes in 7 field days, plus a bunch of other herp species.

Our view of the Panama Canal as we drove from Panama City to El Cope.

Our view of the Panama Canal as we drove from Panama City to El Cope.

We caught this Bird Snake (Pseustes poecilonotus) in the middle of a clearcut on the hike back from our first day in the field. Hours in perfect virgin rainforest without a snake, and then we catch one within minutes of entering a disturbed area.

We caught this Bird Snake (Pseustes poecilonotus) in the middle of a clearcut on the hike back from our first day in the field. Hours in perfect virgin rainforest without a snake, and then we catch one within minutes of entering a disturbed area.

In addition to our own surveys, there was a team of Salamander researchers working in El Cope to document the natural history of Bolitoglossa and Oedipina salamanders. We went out with them on their surveys a few times, and managed to find both genera during the nighttime transect. Here is the Oedipina the next day.

In addition to our own surveys, there was a team of Salamander researchers working in El Cope to document the natural history of Bolitoglossa and Oedipina salamanders. We went out with them on their surveys a few times, and managed to find both genera during the nighttime transect. Here is the Oedipina the next day.

This amazingly iridescent Stenorrhina degenhardtii specializes in eating scorpions and spiders.

This amazingly iridescent Stenorrhina degenhardtii specializes in eating scorpions and spiders.

We found this Rhadinaea decorata immediately after the Stenorrhina, it’s actually a congener of the Pine Woods Snake found in the southeastern United States.

We found this Rhadinaea decorata immediately after the Stenorrhina, it’s actually a congener of the Pine Woods Snake found in the southeastern United States.

Dendrobates auratus, the Black and Green Poison Dart Frog. According to the Dart Frog expert on our trip, the D. auratus around El Cope are the more toxic than at any other locality.

Dendrobates auratus, the Black and Green Poison Dart Frog. According to the Dart Frog expert on our trip, the D. auratus around El Cope are the more toxic than at any other locality.

On the second to last day in the field we found our first and only venomous snake: a small eyelash viper, Bothriechis schlegelii. The local name in Panama and Costa Rica for this species is Bocaraca. I’ve been asking for years and I still can’t get anyone to explain to me what that means.

On the second to last day in the field we found our first and only venomous snake: a small eyelash viper, Bothriechis schlegelii. The local name in Panama and Costa Rica for this species is Bocaraca. I’ve been asking for years and I still can’t get anyone to explain to me what that means.

A panorama of the cloud forest. Steve is loving that Eyelash Viper.

A panorama of the cloud forest. Steve is loving that Eyelash Viper. (Click to view in all its panoramic glory.)

One of the ways that we searched for bushmasters was to use a video camera scope to search deep inside burrows where we suspect they spend much of their time. Here is Steve scoping out a rodent burrow.

One of the ways that we searched for bushmasters was to use a video camera scope to search deep inside burrows where we suspect they spend much of their time. Here is Steve scoping out a rodent burrow.

I’ve spent time in the Central American rainforest before, but I’ve never been to Panama. One of the most interesting things about the Panamanian jungle is that you can encounter lots of South American taxa at their northern distribution limit. This Spiny Dwarf Iguana is one such species. The genus Enyalioides, is primarily South American, and only this species (E. heterolepis) makes it into Central America (only into Panama).

I’ve spent time in the Central American rainforest before, but I’ve never been to Panama. One of the most interesting things about the Panamanian jungle is that you can encounter lots of South American taxa at their northern distribution limit. This Spiny Dwarf Iguana is one such species. The genus Enyalioides, is primarily South American, and only this species (E. heterolepis) makes it into Central America (only into Panama).

The one turtle of the trip was this Rhinoclemmys annulata. This species is known to be more terrestrial than other members of its genus, and we found this one deep in the forest far from any obvious water source.

The one turtle of the trip was this Rhinoclemmys annulata. This species is known to be more terrestrial than other members of its genus, and we found this one deep in the forest far from any obvious water source.

The last snake of the trip was this juvenile Chironius grandisquamis

The last snake of the trip was this juvenile Chironius grandisquamis.

Identifying Neotropical colubrids can be a challenge. We ended up having to use the key in Gunther Kohler’s The Reptiles of Central America to ID the Chironius.

Identifying Neotropical colubrids can be a challenge. We ended up having to use the key in Gunther Kohler’s The Reptiles of Central America to ID the Chironius.